Joana Vasconcelos (born in 1971) is one of Portugal’s best-known contemporary artists and is widely exhibited internationally as well as within Portugal. You may not know her name, but it is likely that you have seen some of her art, as it is hard to miss! She takes everyday objects and transforms them into something else in a surprising, funny or shocking way. Her most famous work is A Noiva (The Bride, 2001-2005) which put her on the international scene in 2005 when she exhibited it in the 51st Venice Biennale. It is an enormous five-metre high white chandelier that goes from ceiling to floor over two floors and from a distance it looks like it is made up of thousands of white beads, but close up I was shocked to see that it is made entirely of tampons.
Other commonplace objects that she has used include green wine bottles which she has used to create two giant candlesticks in Néctar (Nectar, 2006). I have seen this on display in the Buddha Eden sculpture park in Bombarral and in the formal garden of the Serralves Park in Porto and in both settings they were graceful structures that looked like they belonged in the beautiful grounds.
Another sculpture where functional objects are used to create something surprisingly elegant is the seven-metre high engagement ring called Solitário (Solitaire, 2018) which is made up of gold-coloured alloy wheels with a diamond on the top created from crystal whisky glasses. (It’s not surprising to learn that Vasconcelos studied jewellery design as part of her art course at the Centro de Arte e Comunicação in Lisbon.) The ring merges seamlessly the stereotype of what men and women are seen to desire (fast cars and whiskey for men and a diamond ring for women). (Unfortunately on the day I visited the exhibition at Serralves they were dismantling this exhibit and were about to remove the ‘diamond’ when I took the photograph below.)
The two giant silver stilettos in the work named Marilyn (2011) caught my eye from a long way away and made me laugh when I realised they were made of saucepans and saucepan lids! There is a clear feminist message in this work, where the symbol of a woman’s domestic role (the saucepan) is used to create the symbol of artificial beauty (the stiletto): both of which could been seen as images of women’s oppression.
My favourite work of Joana Vasconcelos has to be the large-scale teapot with its intricate wrought ironwork, Casa de Chá (Tea House, 2015), which I discovered unexpectedly in the grounds of Portugal dos Pequenitos in Coimbra.
In contrast the final work that I am including from a vast and varied catalogue doesn’t have the intricacy of the teapot, but is unmissable wherever it is positioned; it is a full-size swimming pool in the shape of the outline of Portugal and named Portugal a Banhos (Portugal Swimming, 2010). When I first saw it it was placed upright on a roundabout outside the grounds of the Serralves Park and I initially thought it was an advertisement for a swimming pool supplier, until I realised what the shape of the pool was and, like most of her work, it left me with a smile on my face.